Last week, not for the first time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he was considering declaring a Palestinian state and asking the United Nations to recognize it. In the past, it went without saying that the United States, which holds a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, would veto any such proposal that did not come about as the result of a negotiated agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. But there is now speculation that President Barack Obama might break with that precedent.
He might do this because he believes in a “two-state solution” and would like to achieve while he’s in the White House and sooner rather than later. This is not unlike Obama’s approach to health care reform. He was willing to use whatever means were necessary to get a law passed. The outcome has not been as he anticipated -- the mid-term elections are testimony to that. Should Obama support a Palestinian state birthed through the “unilateral option,” that, too, would bring unintended consequences.
Unlike many Americans and Europeans, Abbas knows that any deal he could conceivably strike with the Israelis would be unacceptable to most members of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference -- not exactly a half-a-loaf kind of crowd. To them, peace may be preferable to defeat but it's no substitute for victory. Many define victory as Israel’s destruction.
From that perspective, it makes sense for Abbas to cut Israel out of the peace process. No Israel, no concessions. No concessions, no backlash from Abbas’ friends and neighbors. But a politician as savvy as Abbas must see the risks that entails. In the great poker game of the Levant, Palestinian leaders win by playing the “stateless card.” Don’t all peoples have the right to self-determination? And aren’t the Palestinians a people? (Never mind that the rulers of most Arab and Muslim-majority countries answer in the negative when it comes to the Jewish people.)
Once a Palestinian state is established, the stateless Palestinian card disappears from the deck: The conflict is transformed from a fight for Palestinian independence to a border dispute. Abbas would then have to decide whether to pursue territorial claims through violence or ask the Israelis to start up new talks. The former would destroy the security and prosperity achieved on the West Bank in recent years; the latter would leave him in a weaker negotiating position than he holds right now.